Renée (1929-2023)

Renée at the 2017 Playmarket Accolades. Image: Philip Merry


Playwright and novelist Renée dies in Wellington aged 94

Renée (Ngāti Kahungunu) ONZM (1929 –2023) has died peacefully in Wellington, on the evening of 11 December 2023, aged 94.

She was one of Aotearoa's notable writers – a playwright, novelist, poet, short-story writer, essayist and blogger – and an esteemed writing teacher and mentor. Her plays were among the first to put women centre stage, and her fiction did the same thing on the page. She described herself as ‘a lesbian feminist with socialist working-class ideals’ and she was a pioneer in writing about working-class women, takatāpui and Māori.

Renée began writing seriously at the age of 50 and used just her first name as a professional name, saying it was the only one she felt was hers. She wrote ten books of fiction and a memoir, over twenty plays, numerous short stories and essays and, for ten years, a weekly blog. Her best known work is Wednesday To Come, a play about the women in a working-class family coping in the Depression, which is famously set around a coffin and includes scones being baked on stage. It was performed for the first time at Downstage in Wellington in 1984.

A lifelong fan of crime fiction, Renée published her first crime novel, The Wild Card, with The Cuba Press when she turned 90, and the sequel, Blood Matters, three years later. Both were shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Awards and published in the UK by Joffe Books.

Renée was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2006, for services to literature and drama; and she was awarded the Ngā Tohu ā Tā Kingi Ihaka in 2013, for a lifetime contribution to ngā toi Māori, and the Playmarket Award in 2017, for a significant artistic contribution to theatre in New Zealand. In 2018 she received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction, from Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

In 2021, at the age of 92, Renée was invited to deliver the annual Read NZ Te Pou Muramura Pānui, and she spoke about a lifetime of reading. She described losing her eyesight to macular degeneration in her eighties as a tragedy because it stopped her doing what she loved most.

Until shortly before her death, Renée continued to be an active force in the literary world, writing and publishing work; teaching and mentoring other writers; and presenting at literary events in New Zealand, and overseas via videocall.

Renée lived in Ōtaki until October 2023, moving to a Wellington retirement home. She is survived by two of her three sons, Christopher and Timothy, and her mokopuna. Details of the funeral have yet to be announced.